Writing Excuses 16.17: The Time To Rhyme
Key Points: Rhyme can do wonders, but there are also ways to fail at it. It is often thought of as juvenile. It’s also used to pretty up sentiments. One rhyme promises more rhymes. Rhyme is artifice, it calls attention to something. Pay attention to the whole sentence, not just the rhyme at the end. You can also use other tools, such as assonance and alliteration, to make the sentence flow.
[Season 16, episode 17]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, The Time To Rhyme.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And that rhymes with scurry.
[Mary Robinette] I’m…
[Mary Robinette] Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Howard] I thought about saying furry, but I didn’t.
[Amal] Thank you all for [garbled] being this brilliant demonstration of a rhyme’s capacity to surprise, to be playful, to do all sorts of wonderful things.
[Dan] Also, in the outline, you’re about to talk about rhyme as a failure mode. So…
[Dan] Good demonstration of that as well.
[Mary Robinette] We appreciate that, always, Howard.
[Howard] I have spent a solid 12 years here at Writing Excuses being exemplary… The exemplar of failure modes.
[Mary Robinette] This is my favorite.
[Howard] These are…
[Mary Robinette] I mean, Dan is also my favorite, and so is Amal. You’re all my favorites.
[Amal] Oh. Thank you.
[Amal] So, the thing about rhyme is even though obviously everything about this thus far has been delightful…
[Amal] Rhyme is so often kind of pointed to as an example of how poetry is bad. Right? That there is something kind of embarrassing about rhyme. It gets sorted into a sort of juvenile atmosphere. We think of nursery rhymes. We think of poetry as being for children if it is rhyme forward, if there is a lot of rhyming in it. We’ve developed a kind of assumption of rhyme as something essentially immature. I think that is sort of born out or supported by the fact that English, the language we are speaking on this podcast, is a rhyme poor language. So what that means is that we don’t have a ton of words that rhyme with each other the way that Latinate languages do, for instance, where you have whole grammatical modes that just make it so that you can have the same rhyme and a rich rhyme for that matter, like a multisyllabic rhyme happening at the end of a word. Right?
[Dan] Yeah. When I lived in Mexico and was teaching English to some people, this group of teenagers was astonished, like slack-jawed, wide-eyed, shocked that English could rhyme.
[Dan] It had never occurred to them that that was a possibility. Because in Spanish, the opportunities for rhyme are so much more present. Although, at the same time, I kind of want to push back a little bit on the idea that rhyme is seen as juvenile. I think that that attitude comes from an academic side. Because if you look at poetry as it exists kind of for the average American, the forward that your aunt sends to you on Facebook and that sort of thing, the average Westerner, I should say, it’s replete with rhyme. Rhyme is everywhere. When the typical person sits down to write a poem, more often than not, they’re going to put rhyme into it.
[Mary Robinette] But this is exactly what Amal is saying, is that because it is something that is accessible and is not used well, frequently…
[Mary Robinette] That’s… That is often seen as… That it’s a stage that poetry goes through and then you mature and cast off these constraints…
[Mary Robinette] Then your poetry can live.
[Amal] This is basically exactly what I mean. I think that this is… So, not to contradict your point, Dan, I think that’s exactly true. Rhyme tends to stand in for a broader understanding of form. So what we were talking about in the last couple of episodes about ways to structure poetry, I think that a lot of people only ever learn one way that poetry looks. That way is that it has rhyme. If you’re lucky, it has a rhyme scheme or meter, which is not always part of that received idea of what a poem looks like as evidenced by numerous Hallmark cards that do not scan.
[Amal] And stuff. But nevertheless have a rhyme. There’s a received idea that language is elevated thereby, as well. I think those two things exist at the same time. That rhyme is something that you do with like children’s verse or things that are aimed at kids. But it’s also what you have in a Hallmark card when you want to kind of pretty up the sentiment of the thing that you are sending. If you rhyme it, it’s a little bit more effort that has been put in there or something.
[Howard] I think one of the problems with rhyme, and a problem that simultaneously it’s a strength, is that a single rhyme, whether it’s an internal rhyme or end of line rhyme or something, functions, to the listener, to the reader, is a promise of more rhyming. If it’s not there, then maybe you were writing prose and you had an accidental rhyme and now it feels weird. Or if it’s not there in your poem, maybe the promise of the rhyme was subverted, and you had a bunch of things that almost rhymed, and you’ve now delivered a different sort of experience. But that thought that when a rhyme happens, it calls attention to itself, not just in a way to say, “I’m important,” but in a way to say, “And you should expect me to bring all my friends to the party, too.”
[Amal] Yes. That is a really, really good point. It sets up an expectation. When you… And similarly, this is to come back to the way that we were talking about repetition before as well, when you have unintentional repetition, it strikes your attention in an awkward way. You go, “Oh, wait. You just used that word.” Especially if it’s repetition of a particularly noticeable word. You use a word like scintilate twice in three sentences. That is maybe a mistake, and you should think about that, and maybe revise it. But with rhyme, it’s a similar sort of thing. There are so many ways to fail at doing rhyme because it entails a whole nexus of variables. You are setting up an expectation for something that’s quite difficult to do. Because of this, I want to kind of compare rhyme to another thing that is very difficult to do, but that we have a very heightened expectation of, which is makeup.
[Amal] I want to talk about essentially rhyme is artifice, right? Rhyme does not occur supernaturally in English. So, there’s a sense of the artificial whenever we deploy it. There’s that sense of, like, where calling attention to something. Notice this thing. Makeup is something also artificial. It is artifice that we are using to a variety of different effects. You can use makeup unobtrusively to sort of, without calling attention to it, highlight features of your face that you want to emphasize or deemphasize others, right? So you can either use it that way or you can give yourself a bold red lip and smoky eyes, right? But if you’re doing a bold red lip and smoky eyes, it’s a lot easier to notice where you done it badly. Right? It’s a lot more skill to deploy artifice in a way that is succeeding at the effect that it is trying to communicate. So I want to think of rhyme as a bold red lip and smoky eyes, and to think about like when you are using it in your poem, when is it going to be appropriate to be like that and when is it not. When do you want to put in that much effort, essentially, to be seen in this way, when you could put in a lot less effort to achieve the same effect, for instance? So, in order to talk about this… Well, actually, I’m going to talk about that a little bit later. Probably want to pause here for our book of the week?
[Mary Robinette] Yes. I was going to let you go, because I was like, “This is really interesting and I’m taking notes.” But it is, in fact, time for our book of the week. I want to talk to you about The Forever Sea, by Joshua Phillip Johnson. This is a debut novel. It’s a book in which I’m going to promise you that you will get pirates and high sea adventure, except that the sea is a massive, massive prairie that you can sink into, and there is magic, there’s coming-of-age, there’s adventure, but it is such a beautiful evocative landscape. The author comes out of a literary tradition… I mean, he is fundamentally a science fiction and fantasy writer, but there is a poeticness… Poetic nature to the language with which he describes the prairie. It’s a lovely book, and is one of those things that just paints pictures in your head that linger. And also, one of the ways in which magic is done is through song. So it’s filled with verse that is not… It’s not frequently a typical structure that you would recognize, but clearly structured and intentional. It’s lovely, lovely. Highly recommend this book. The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson.
[Amal] I love that about… The combination of sea and prairies and song made a sort of trifecta in my head that reminded me of an Arrogant Worm song. They’re a Canadian band. They have a song about being a pirate on the Saskatchewan prairies, basically. The title has not come to my mind, but it is super delightful. Anyways, I really want to read this book.
[Howard] I’ve just learned that Canada has prairie.
[Amal] Yes. It’s all in the… Similarly to the States, in the middle portion of the country, but yes.
[Mary Robinette] That is actually what Joshua was basing these prairies on, with a great prairies in the middle of the US and Canada, and the way that the settlers, when they were going across, that they would describe it is just a sea of grass.
[Amal] Yes. Yeah, I’ve seen that, especially referred to in like Kentucky. The bluegrasses there and stuff.
[Amal] But to come back to rhyme, then. Which… connecting to songs and stuff, which frequently feature rhyme. The… When you want to rhyme in a poem, but I want to make clear is that it’s not that if you are unobtrusive or unnoticeable with the rhyme, it’s better than if you are foregrounding the rhyme. Anymore than saying it is better to not have noticeable makeup versus to have very noticeable makeup. Those are both choices that you make, depending on the effect that you want to convey. I just want to name some failure modes, essentially, of using rhyme that are similar to smudging your mascara…
[Amal] Or going out of the line of your lips or something like that. So, rhyme when it’s used as like the be-all, end-all of something often misses a number of cues. Usually, the way to fix any of the problems that I’m going to name is to read the thing out loud. Which is a way of solving the myriad problems. I’m sure that you’ve all talked about this a number of times on previous episodes. When you read something out loud, you force yourself to confront everything that you have put on the page. Not just the rhyme at the end. So, often, novices experimenting with rhyme sort of use the whole of the line preceding the rhyme as filler for the rhyme. That is a problem. Because usually what that means is that you’re not sufficiently attentive to the meaning of the sentence, to the rhythm of the sentence, and to essentially how that rhyme is going to land. If you put the rhyme only in service of the rhyme scheme you are following or just as a kind of… You’ve written yourself into a corner where you realize the only way to rhyme with world is swirled or something like that, even though that’s not what you want to say, it’s usually a sign that you need to go back and try to think about what is it that you’re trying to say. What effect do you want to convey, and how are you going to make the rhyme serve that effect? I want to read you a poem that is very short, that is, to me, one of the most beautiful evocative contemporary examples of a rhyming poem. Because rhyme, like anything, like makeup, has its fashions, right? Things fall in and out of fashion with writing all the time. Rhyme fell out of fashion in the 17th century, where, when Milton wrote Paradise Lost essentially and wrote a gigantic epic that was unrhymed. That was taking a certain stance in a certain taste in a certain fashion. Rhyme has, in and out of those fashions in a lot of ways since. But there is this one poem that is very explicitly foregrounding its rhymes. It is a poem where you cannot ignore the rhymes. They are absolutely there in part of it. But it’s also quiet and moving and generous and beautiful. It’s… You may very well have encountered it, because it often turns up on Instagram. It’s called The Orange by Wendy Cope. I’m going to read it to you.
At lunchtime I bought a huge orange —
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave —
They got quarters and I had a half.
And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.
The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.
I should also say, I should maybe have said this before hand, this is a poem that I find almost impossible to read without crying at the end. So… It’s… You’ll notice… The things I want to draw your attention to about this is that not only is it rhyming, it has a very singsong cadence. It has ditdit ditdit ditdit duhduh ditdit ditdit ditdit duh. It just kind of lulls you into this back-and-forth rhythm that seems, by virtue of being singsongy, something a little silly, something that’s a bit like a nursery rhyme. Then, in the last two lines, it just becomes the most profound expression of adulthood, of the challenges of just taking pleasure in small things and recognizing the grace of just loving someone else and loving yourself at the same time. These are things that we’re no longer used to finding in rhyming poetry. We’re used to finding these instead in very sharply sculpted free verse poems and stuff. Instead, here, Wendy Cope is doing this tremendous thing with a rhyming poem which I cannot stress enough is titled The Orange, which is a word you cannot rhyme in English.
[Howard] One of my favorite things about this poem is that… I mean, the orange is for… The word orange is famously the word you can’t rhyme in English. Wendy gets around that not by using it never as the last word… It’s right there, last word in the first line… Gets around it by using a non-unrhymed symmetry. That orange it made me so happy, as ordinary things often do. Orange and ordinary do not rhyme, but they are absolutely paired together in a way that the words echo one another. Yeah, took the rule of you can’t rhyme orange, and Wendy’s like, “I don’t need to rhyme it.”
[Amal] Right. The scheme of the poem is not something like ABAB. It is ABCB.
[Mary Robinette] Not now.
[Amal] So the first and the third lines don’t rhyme. So she has also very judiciously used orange as the last word of a line in a line that she doesn’t need to rhyme according to the schema that she has chosen. But you’re absolutely right as well that when you are using rhyme in your poem as part of your effect, you don’t need to use it to the exclusion of many other ways of making a sentence flow. So, things like assonance and alliteration, which are also ways of drawing attention to elements of language, that are much more prevalent in English because we have a lot more of those. This is why something like Beowulf or old English poetry in general didn’t have rhyme schemes, they had schemes of alliteration that were extremely precise. So I think within the old English, Beowulf goes, “[Wailing kin be water man, vex chis go na men]” and… Is that right? No. Sorry. That’s not Beowulf, that’s The Song of Deor. Anyway. Forget I said that.
[Amal] Nevertheless, it has a very specific alliteration scheme instead of a rhyme scheme. You could use those as well as rhyme in your work.
[Mary Robinette] Would you like a brief aside about my elementary school poetry workshop, in which I learned about alliteration and my mom had a fine moment of adulting?
[Amal] Oh, my gosh. Please, yes.
[Mary Robinette] We had to write… Artists in residence came, and we learned about all kinds of different things. Rhyme, alliteration, I think shaped poetry where you write… The poem is in the shape of whatever it is? So I did a shaped poem about my cat, which included alliteration in it. It included the line that I love to pat my pussy.
[Mary Robinette] My mom is like, “Maybe you want to take a different word here. Kitty? Kitty? It’s the same number of syllables.” I’m like, “No, mommy. No. It’s alliteration, it has to start with the same letter. Pat my kitty does not. It has to be pat my pussy.”
[Mary Robinette] Like, in hindsight, I understand the faces that she was making in the valiant effort that she was making to not laugh.
[Amal] Oh, my gosh. That’s so good.
[Howard] I was worried that the shape was going to be obscene, but no. No.
[Mary Robinette] No.
[Howard] You went to a different place. Well done.
[Mary Robinette] I was in third grade.
[Howard] No, I mean accidentally obscene. The prompt changed when you printed it or something. Third grade [garbled] typewriter. Handwriting.
[Mary Robinette] You’re so quaint. That was pencil on lined paper.
[Amal] Oh, that’s so beautiful.
[Mary Robinette] Do you have anything else you want to tell us, Amal? Before we…
[Amal] Oh, my gosh. I feel like nothing could possibly top patting one’s pussy.
[Amal] So I think I’m just going to quickly move into homework. So…
[Mary Robinette] [inaudible]
[Amal] Yes. We have talked about limericks in previous episodes, I think. But what I want you to do for homework today is look up the limericks of Edward Lear, who was very famous for his limericks, and specifically for giving them certain features of singular persons from specific places and stuff like that. I want you to, using one of Edward Lear’s limericks, I want you to use it as a model for your own limerick. I want you to just invent a limerick, paying careful attention to how the rhyme needs to match the rhythm of a limerick. So, a lot of the time, when people are taught how to write limericks, they’re just given like a syllable count that you need to go from here to here, but syllables are wiggly beasts. It’s not so much about the syllables as it is about the way that it sounds when you read it out loud. The meter of the way that these syllables come together. So I want you to look up a limerick, use it as a model, write a limerick, read that limerick out loud, and see if you can match the rhythm of what you’re writing to the rhythm of the poem you’re using as a model.
[Mary Robinette] I’m going to offer people a hack for doing this. For people who are not used to dealing with meter. That one of the things you can do when you are looking at that original limerick is to put the syllables that are stressed in capitals or in bold. When you are picking a new word to go into those places, make sure that the bold and the… Or capitals match up so that your stresses are hitting the right spots. That’s what I did. It took me a long time to understand what meter meant.
[Amal] That is an excellent hack, and I’m going to use it to explain this henceforth, because I’m always trying to sidestep a whole, like, lecture on meter and having to explain what an anapest is as opposed to a pest. Just… So this is much better. That is very, very helpful.
[Mary Robinette] I’m happy to help with that. With that… This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.